Zareen Farhad, Contributing Writer
When one Black woman shared her experience as being deemed unapproachable by co-workers, more than 100 audience members joined by giving nods of agreement and supportive words. A lively discussion about the complexities of the “angry Black woman” stereotype followed.
“We’re objectified and pathologized and forced into stereotypes that don’t represent the fullness of our humanities,” said Dawn Johnson, an adjunct professor of gender, sexuality and women’s studies. “Because Black women sit at the intersection of both race and gender, they’re often subject to multiple stereotypes that are both racist and sexist.”
In celebration of Black History Month, VCU’s Office of Multicultural Student Affairs is presenting a weekly “Lunch and Learn” discussion every Tuesday in February to dismantle prominent stereotypes about Black women. Johnson led “The ‘Angry Black Woman’” discussion on Feb. 9.
“It starts the conversation. It starts the process of people really looking inside of themselves, to say, ‘What can I do to be better in how I treat women of color, or how I am as a woman of color?’” said Tameika McCoy, advocate coordinator for University Counseling Services. “It provides space for women of color to come together for healing and empowerment.”
A university-wide Black History Month committee of 26 people organized the event, McCoy said. This committee has planned several events, and a complete calendar is available on OMSA’s website.
Committee members submitted potential programming ideas, streamlined broad topics and formed subcommittees. In addition to the four-part “Lunch and Learn” series, the “More Than Enough”’ subcommittee, led by McCoy, organized a fifth event, titled “Black Girl Boss: Professionalism According to the Black Woman.”
Organizers held the event around lunch to attract more people on breaks, McCoy said. They coordinated with Fraternity and Sorority Life at VCU to arrange a limited amount of free lunches that students could register to pick up at The Commons prior to each event.
McCoy said the discussion topics came naturally. “More Than Enough” brainstormed about the most persistent and detrimental stereotypes against Black women and decided on four topics — “The Jezebel Syndrome: Hypersexualization of Black Women,” “The ‘Angry Black Woman,’” “The Mystery of the ‘Strong’ Black Woman” and “Misperceptions of Black Women in Politics.”
“The program is a real exercise in trying to dismantle stereotypes and helping people to understand that stereotypes can be truly damaging,” Johnson said. “People that live with the stereotype can have their own internalized oppression, and it’s just a way to prevent that from happening.”
Johnson’s presentation focused on the fact that pervasive stereotypes and controlling images placed upon Black women stem from slavery and are constantly reinforced in modern popular culture.
“The discussion on the angry Black woman hit home. It hit home because it’s so routine to hear, and it is sad and discouraging that people feel that way. With women in general, people think we’re emotional or angry or upset, just for being a person.” — Wilma Robinson, event coordinator for VCU School of Dentistry
Such stereotypes result in a variety of unintended consequences, Johnson said. Black women are routinely overlooked for promotions or careers in academia because of stereotypes and negative portrayals in media.
“Furthering the stereotype also restricts Black women from feeling like they can have emotion without people layering that stereotype on them,” Johnson said.
The objectives of the presentation were to understand the history of the stereotype, acknowledge the ways in which it manifests in media and popular culture and to initiate a discussion about pushing back on the stereotype, Johnson said.
Wilma Robinson, an event coordinator for the VCU School of Dentistry, is hopeful about seeing more programs like this one facilitated by the university in the future.
“People just don’t get it, and I don’t know if they even want to get it. So, to have more events showing up, I think that would really help,” Robinson said.
Turnout for the events has reached over 140 attendees, and the sessions seek to foster an open environment in which attendees are enthusiastic about sharing thoughts and experiences.
“The discussion on the angry Black woman hit home,” Robinson said. “It hit home because it’s so routine to hear, and it is sad and discouraging that people feel that way. With women in general, people think we’re emotional or angry or upset, just for being a person.”